Friday, March 16, 2012

Blacks and Whites and Pollsters Who Ask Annoying Questions

I was baited into signing up for a service that sends out online polls. The purpose of this post is not to blame any individual pollster, but to comment on something that I've often noticed as making a lot of poll questions annoying...the Really Ridiculous Generalization, or Generalization to the Point of Absurdity.

"If [B]lacks would only try harder, they would have the same opportunities as [W]hites." As a poll item for this day and time I find this question annoying to the point of being impossible to give a short answer. Which Black people? Which White people? Which opportunities?

I'm aware of situations where "affirmative action policies" do in fact discriminate in favor of Black people--and yes, since my generation of Americans are much more comfortable with different ethnic looks than with different socioeconomic backgrounds from our own, these policies do tend to boost rich "Buppies" at the expense of the needy "ghetto" type the policies were meant to help.

I know people who not only support/ed and respect/ed President Obama, ex-Governor Doug Wilder, athlete Doug Williams, and any number of other well-known people because they were the first person of their ethnic type in their position, but actually voted for officials or hired employees because they wanted personally to give a minority candidate a chance.

I watched voters in the northern corner of Virginia decide against Jerry Kilgore (who I still think would have been a better governor than Tim Kaine) because, speaking for his own people in the southwestern corner of Virginia, Kilgore said the time had come for Virginia's school system to give up affirmative action. I've seen the kind of situations he had in mind, up close and personal. I could name a few of the pampered princes and princesses, each one the only child of a successful yuppie family in a posh suburb of Washington, who benefit from having dark skin or an exotic name when they apply for admission to a big-name college, even as their parents have insisted "But my child wouldn't want to take any benefits away from a needy student in Anacostia!" Maybe s/he didn't want to do that, but the fact was that s/he did it. But in northern Virginia people of good will were aware of these "ghetto-type" students who, if they were going to get any breaks in life, seemed likely to get them by way of affirmative action, inefficient and ethically repulsive though affirmative action is.

And the hateful truth is that the overprivileged diplomat's kid whose first student labor job was "congressional page" probably was in a better position to succeed at the big-name college than his or her potential classmate from Anacostia, too. More on this topic has been and is being said, better than I can say it, by Larry Elder.

I'm also aware of situations where not only Whiteness, but blondness is definitely still an advantage. I don't think these situations constitute an overwhelming barrier to anyone's advancement; I think they're mostly individual preferences, like my own feeling that, although it's possible for men with blue or grey eyes to be attractive, it's unusual. Maybe in some parts of the world the population is more homogeneous, and the preferences constitute more of a solid block, than has been the case in the places where I've lived.

I'm also aware of situations where, regardless of ethnic type, there is active and not even covert discrimination against people who actually need the money, as when landlords demand that renters have credit cards, or employers look for employees with higher credit scores than a normal, job-qualified college student or recent graduate would be likely to have.

Then there's a smarmy form of very subjectively based discrimination in favor of people the individual in a position to discriminate likes--actually, so far as I can see, because they boost this individual's shaky self-esteem, but the individual will say "they're 'trying,'" or "I like his/her 'attitude,'" or some other buzzword of the individual's choice that doesn't have much objective meaning. Poor people who accept "help" from social workers, or from would-be friends who've talked to social workers, encounter a great deal of this barrier to success on the part of anyone who has much self-respect or much of a basis for self-respect. There is a very strong tendency for social workers to feel threatened by people who quietly accomplish anything on their own, work ahead of the group, or don't need the kind of "help" the social workers are qualified to dole out. I can understand why members of ethnic minorities perceive this as racism, but reading Nathaniel Lachenmeyer's book The Outsider will show them that the problem goes beyond race.

Then there's a problem some members of ethnic minorities create for themselves, individually and subjectively, by viewing everything in the context of racism. By habitually doubting that others are capable of good will, they express distrust and create distrust. Kenneth Meeks' Driving While Black documents some of the ways this works to the benefit of nobody.

Has racism, sexism, or some other form of bigotry prevented some members of the active generation from receiving the breaks, the credit, the promotion they deserve? Nobody can doubt it. Will racism, sexism, etc., be the biggest barrier to personal advancement anybody faces in the course of a lifetime? I don't think any reasonable person can believe that.

Furthermore, is "trying harder" the key to success in this century? For anybody? I'm not sure about that either; when I see people my age succeeding at anything with a slower employment turnover than sports, from which people my age are retiring now, the key has been to carve out niches for ourselves by doing something older people aren't already doing. (Some local readers think the things I've tried marketing, in real life and on this site, are "weird" in the sense of unlikely, off the wall...that's because the only things I see people my age actually selling are off the wall!) If "trying harder" is still relevant, it's in the sense of trying harder to do something different and get around the obstacles of protectionism and red tape. Trying harder to beat someone else at what s/he is already doing is possible only when the people already doing it succumb to hubris. The market is ready for another business to challenge Wal-Mart, not by trying harder to do what Wal-Mart's doing, but by doing what Wal-Mart originally did and has now stopped doing.

I would like to see pollsters "try harder" to come up with questions that can be answered in a way that reflects any awareness of current reality at all.

This same poll also included a little thermometer on which respondents were asked to indicate the warmth of their feelings toward various groups. I kept pointing the mouse somewhere around "neutral" for ethnic groups and "somewhat favorable" for groups defined by any positive belief system (my actual feeling is favorable toward people who sincerely practice their beliefs). I kept getting little shadings...do I feel three degrees warmer toward Latinos than toward Asians? Whatever. I've lived in Washington long enough and worked with enough people of all types to have some real feelings about different individuals, and not to care a great deal about demographic labels that don't necessarily even fit those individuals. The target was 50--neutral. I don't care whether the computer read 51 or 54.

Would narrowing the group labels help? Hah. "White Jewish women my age who live in Washington, are the eldest daughters of distinguished fathers, and are naturally blonde?" Before I had a real, serious enemy, that category really spanned the extent of emotional feelings I have toward people. It happens to include one woman who I think cheated me out of money, whose father's store I boycott, and of whom I'd be pleased to hear that she'd lost everything her parents bequeathed to her, including her hair. It also happens to include one woman who I think is about as decent as it's possible for a human being to be; when one of the Oily McFilthy relatives left me a wad of money I sent it to her, and only wish it had been more and sooner.

Here's my favorite generalization: "People who form emotional attachments to the labels for large demographic groups don't actually know any members of the groups thus labelled." I think that one probably is true, even when the group in question includes the emotional person. For example, although Hitler apparently did feel an emotional attachment to the idea of being "German," he seems to have been too far out of touch to live in an actual German family.

If you want to know how Americans actually feel about one another in this century, whether you're a pollster, writer, advertiser, or whatever else, you need to get real. My feeling is that real prejudice continues to be a problem, but most of the time it's either prejudice against those who have less money (which is what I usually mean by the word "elitism") or prejudice against those whose differences from us are primarily temperamental, even neurological, and may not be fully understood by the person feeling the prejudice.

For example: I deeply dislike extroverts. I consciously work at discouraging extroverted behavior. If you want to be recognized by me in a public place, my subjective feeling is that you really ought to be a person who feels that it's better to approach quietly and say something that--cryptically--reminds me of why you recognize me, rather than the type who blurts out other people's names and expects us to remember you. This has been mentioned, I think in Driving While Black, as something some African-Americans consider evidence of race prejudice; it's been mentioned to me personally as something the less privileged types in my home town consider evidence of snobbery. What it is evidence of is a belief that, when all forms of healthy and permanent introversion are considered together, we're not even a minority, and we can and should educate others about the kind of behavior we consider friendly as distinct from obnoxious.

As I'm typing this blog post, I'm thinking back...the last time I snubbed an acquaintance who blurted out my name, about a year ago, it was a woman who was a year or two behind me in school. Like me, she's entitled to check "mixed race" whenever a form offers that option. Unlike me, she grew up being told to check "Black." In theory that makes no difference; in practice it's probably why I remember her name--fewer people in the places where I've seen her look like her. In middle school I blurted out her name in public places, too, because it was a small town and it was the twentieth century and we were children. Now it's no longer the twentieth century and we're no longer children and I don't like the behavior of blurting out people's names.

There is one Black, or Afro-Caribbean, person whom I do in fact loathe, for good and sufficient reasons. There are several Black, African-American, Afro-Caribbean, and African-immigrant people toward whom I feel loyalty and gratitude and admiration, for various good and sufficient reasons. There are a few people whose identity is African-American toward whom I feel cousinly affection, also for good and sufficient reasons. The vast majority of the people who've been described as Black are total strangers to me.

Some of the behavior discussed in Driving While Black puts me off, and some doesn't, depending on whether I personally have experienced this behavior as annoying, as threatening, or as just another student fad. One behavior that really puts me off is any form of race hate.

Sometimes it's hard for people to say, even for themselves, whether what they're feeling or expressing is a form of race hate or of something less easily defined. Large men with heavy eyebrows and outthrust jaws look aggressive and can seem intimidating. If they resemble an adult who yelled at you or a bigger kid who picked on you, when you were a small child, you probably have stronger and more unpleasant feelings about them than you like to admit. Some White people in Washington used to claim to feel intimidated by two of the men I found easiest to like and trust in the city--a colleague, and my doctor--and that used to bother me. That I now feel revulsion toward, and could feel intimidated by, some White men I might have found attractive twenty years ago--because they've lost their hair and come to resemble the "skinhead" type I find easy to hate--also bothers me.

And yes, I do think we've reached a point where members of ethnic minorities are in positions to practice racism toward the Anglo-American not-so-much-of-a-majority-any-more, and that ticks me off too.

And then something floats in, in the e-mail, like this Blaze post. If you are a person of good will and are at any risk for hypertension, or even for nausea, do not click on this link. The purpose of Madeleine Morgenstern's posting this was to publicize Glenn Beck's rebuttal of the hatespew. If you'd rather listen to Beck on some other topic, go ahead and give this one a miss. It is disgusting:

http://www.theblaze.com/stories/hear-the-anti-semitic-message-sent-to-a-blaze-advertiser-who-asked-for-donations-for-a-holocaust-museum/

What comes to mind are actually scraps of poems, like--was it C.S. Lewis's satirical thought about the unlikelihood of interplanetary travel? "The heavens hide their face from man's intolerable race." Or the old doggerel about the monkeys sitting in the tree, discussing things as they're said to be: "Yes, Man has descended, that ornery cuss, but surely he never descended from us."

Well, right...that gives our pollster a valid excuse for asking people who identify with the Tea Party all these annoying questions that presuppose that we have emotional feelings about demographic labels. I suppose. Because the source of the hatespew was a Blaze reader. Maybe the pollster is working with the FBI and trying to find the lunatic who needs to be, er, watched, because he sounds about ready to go off the deep end.

I still find the questions annoying. What's there to say about them except, now that I've posted it, "See my blog."

And if I'd had any idea who had spewed what started out as an ordinary Tourette's Syndrome episode but wound up with a threat, I would have notified...the police, anyway, if not the FBI. Not on this blog or in public. Given the face I inherited, I doubt that anybody's ever going to spew antisemitic hate and threats in my presence unless they're directly attacking me, but let there be no mistake about this. I am the Tea Party and by me hate may be merely pathetic, but plotting violent acts is a crime. Even if the threat sounds as if the "we" referenced consist of the voices in the threatener's head.